Classics: How to properly stir and shake a cocktail

It's not as intuitive as you think.  The when, why, and how.

Originally Published 4/9/12

I became a bartender because I was in the right place at the right time and found myself in front of the right, desperate bar manager.  I was 22 years old and had never worked in a bar or restaurant, but I was enthusiastic, I was interested in cocktails, and that manager really needed a bartender.  I read some books, memorized some recipes and made the rest up. It wasn’t pretty at first—there are a lot of things books about bartending don’t tell you about bartending.

It recently occurred to me that when I include a drink recipe in a post for Dappered, I make the same assumption that most books about bartending make: that you sort of already know what you’re doing.  And even if you do, you may not know why things are done the way that they’re done.  To fill in some of those gaps, I’ll be writing a series of posts over the next several months that cover some of the fundamentals of mixing drinks.

Shaking and Stirring: When, Why, and How

Aside from drinks containing dairy or eggs (which should always be shaken), the actual mixing part of mixing drinks doesn’t take a lot of effort.  For the most part, just pouring all the ingredients into the same glass will sufficiently disperse the ingredients.  So why go through the trouble of stirring or shaking?  One reason is that they are very quick ways to make a drink very cold, but a less obvious benefit is dilution.  Water in a cocktail is a surprisingly important ingredient.  A little bit of water goes a long way to curb the bite of alcohol, prevent sweet ingredients from cloying and balance sour or bitter ingredients without using large amounts of sugar.  And even if you’re drinking more-or-less straight alcohol, the addition of a little water will make your booze smell and taste better.  It’s science.

Shaking and stirring both achieve the goals of chilling and diluting your cocktail.  Where they differ is in aeration.  Shaking (obviously) aerates the cocktail, while proper stirring will incorporate almost no air whatsoever.  It may seem like a nit-picking concern, but the effects of aeration on a cocktail can be striking.  Aeration in a cocktail containing citrus makes the citrus taste cleaner and truer than the same drink without the aeration.  Apparently this is due to chemical changes that occur when compounds in lemon and lime oil called terpenes are exposed to oxygen.  I won’t pretend to understand the science behind it, but the fact that citrus drinks taste better shaken has been borne out by several blind taste tests I’ve conducted, not to mention more than a century and a half of bartending tradition.

On the other hand, aeration in cocktails without citrus tends to be a detriment.  Cold spirits have a much smoother, thicker texture than water.  Shaking disrupts this texture and harms appearance, too.  Spirit forward drinks are jewel-clear when stirred, but turn into cloudy messes when shaken.  And they taste better stirred, too.  See above about taste tests and bartending tradition.  And if you don’t believe me, there is always this guy.

And, before moving on to the nuts and bolts of it, a brief word to preempt some indignation in the comments section.  A lot of people like their martinis shaken. There are three main reasons why I think this is:

  1. James Bond made it look cool.
  2. Shaken drinks are colder than stirred drinks and for many martini drinkers coldness is the most prized feature.
  3. A lot of people have never actually had a properly stirred martini.

You should always drink your drinks the way that makes you happy, but if you’re a shaken martini partisan you should at least give the stirred martini a chance.
.

Shaking – The Equipment

Though they seem to be the default for home bartending, I’ve never been a fan of three-piece shakers (also called cobbler shakers).  They are the ones that have a tin, a cap with a strainer built in and small cap that fits over the strainer.  They can be difficult to get apart when cold and are prone to leaking.

A Boston shaker which consists of a standard pint glass and a large tin which fits over it is much more reliable, though a little bit of skill is required in its use.  Pouring from a Boston shaker is done with the aid of the familiar Hawthorne strainer.
.

Shaking – The Technique

Step 1:  Make the Seal - After putting all the ingredients for your cocktail into the glass half of the Boston shaker, fill the glass with ice then place the metal half over the glass at an angle with the tin tilted toward you.  The rim of the tin closest to you should be in contact with the side of the glass.  Using the heel of your hand, strike the base of the inverted tin to lock the halves together.  If you’ve made a good seal you can pick up the whole shaker by the tin alone.

.

Step 2:  The Grip -  Next invert the shaker so that the glass half is on top.  Grip the shaker with one hand such that the ring and pinky fingers are on the metal half of the shaker and the middle and index fingers are on the glass part of the shaker.  Your thumb should be on the opposite side of the shaker covering both halves at the point where they meet.  Next place the thumb of your other hand on the bottom of the inverted glass and your other four fingers along the side of the metal half.

Hold on tight and shake vigorously.  You really can’t mess this part up, as long as you put some energy into your shake.  Some prefer a more up and down sort of shake.  I prefer an over-the-shoulder back and forth.  Do whatever is comfortable for you.  After ten to fifteen seconds your drink is just about as cold as it’s ever going to get.
.

Step 3:  Breaking The Seal –  The trickiest part is next: breaking the seal.  Hold the shaker by the metal half and using the heel of your other hand, firmly strike the top of the side of the tin about one inch away from the point where the glass touches the rim of the metal half.  Finding the exact point to strike can be a trick, but it’s easy with a little practice.

Step 4:  Strain and finish - Cover the metal half with your Hawthorne strainer.  Use your index finger to keep it in place and strain into your serving glass.
.

Stirring – The Equipment

Stirring requires a pint (or similarly sized) glass, a long handled barspoon and julep strainer.  If you want to be fancy, you can buy expensive Japanese mixing glasses, but they don’t work any better or differently than a 50 cent standard issue beer glass.  You can use a Hawthorne strainer to strain from a mixing glass, but drinks pour neater out of a glass using a julep strainer.

Stirring properly does require practice, but if you drink many cocktails at home, or host with any frequency, it is well worth the effort to learn.
.

Stirring – The Technique

Step 1: The Ice and Start of the Grip - Place all the ingredients for your cocktail into the mixing glass and fill 2/3 full with ice.  It’s best if you crack (with a whack of the spoon or otherwise) the first few cubes to go into the glass.  This yields some smaller ice chips that will help the cocktail chill faster.  Next, with your palm facing up, place the handle of the spoon between the middle and ring fingers of your dominant hand.

.

Step 2:  Finish The Grip - Angle your fingers down and loosely hold the upper part of the handle between your thumb and the first knuckle of your index finger.  Put the spoon into the cocktail and ice and push the bowl of the spoon against the inside of the mixing glass at 12 o’clock.

.
Step 3:  Stirring - Keeping the bowl of the spoon against the glass at all times, rotate your wrist such that your middle finger pulls the spoon down to 6 o’clock.  Return your wrist to its original position, this time pushing the spoon back to 12 o’clock.  The spoon will rotate between your fingers.  The effect should be to spin the ice as a single unit around in the glass.  Using this technique disturbs the ice minimally thereby incorporating a minimum of air into your cocktail.  All together it should look something like this:
.

.
.
Stirring takes longer to properly chill and dilute a drink:  about 45 seconds to shaking’s 10 seconds.   After you’re done place the julep strainer into your glass, hold in place with your index finger and strain into your serving glass.

A note:  It is much easier to plunge the handle of your barspoon into the cocktail and push it around the edge of the glass.  For that matter, you can forego the spoon entirely and use a chopstick. It will accomplish the same goal as stirring properly, but it’s sort of like wearing Crocs to a wedding.  It gets the job done, but it looks terrible.

About our Bartender – Michael Bowers is the Head Bartender at the Modern Hotel and Bar in Boise, Idaho.  His patrons know him for the uncanny precision with which he tends his bar.  Michael’s cocktails have been noted by, among others, Food and Wine, Sunset Magazine, GQ, and the New York Times.  See more in The Drink archive
Very Top
Photo Credit.